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Careers in DNA Analysis

DNA analysis is a very basic but essential tool in biological and medical diagnostics and research, but it is used as a small fraction of different science-based professions, rather than being a job in itself. If you have a tertiary qualification in biology, and practical experience in a laboratory, then you may be well-suited for a job involving DNA analysis. Most careers with a focus on DNA analysis are research based because of the need for access to laboratory-based resources and the complexity of the process. Non-science or medical careers are rare.

Research Careers

Because the training to become competent in obtaining, processing and analyzing DNA is extensive, most people only enter research after completing an undergraduate or associate-level degree. This qualifies them to begin as a lab technician or research assistant. Technicians and research assistants cannot obtain or possess federal funding to conduct independent research, and will therefore work under the supervision of senior scientists, such as a postdoctoral fellow, research scientist or principal investigator. Individuals who choose a career in research often obtain advanced degrees, e.g. a master of science or a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.). In many research organizations, such as federal or state-funded institutes, a Ph.D. is mandatory for career progression and eligibility for funding, laboratory space, lecturing and supervising students and hiring staff. Salaries are higher in private or commercial research industries than in government, academic or charity-based institutes. But industrial DNA analysis careers are tightly regulated by intellectual property or other legal agreements.

Genetic Counselors

Genetic counselors hold bachelor's degrees in biology or other health-related subject with a strong focus on molecular biology and genetics. Although most of the DNA analysis will be performed in the laboratory by a molecular biologist or geneticist, genetic counselors must understand DNA sequences and mutations that cause diseases. Professionals may be required to undergo state-approved training and certification to qualify and practice as a genetic counselor. But many biotechnology companies that offer personal genome sequencing services (e.g. 23andme, Ilumina) may provide in-house training without requiring certification. Genetic counselors are essentially scientists trained as social workers. They educate patients who have taken genetic tests to diagnose diseases or to assess their risk of developing, and/or passing on to their children, certain hereditary conditions. They provide information to the patient and then guide decisions about disease or fertility treatments. Genetic counselors also work for in diagnostic laboratories in hospitals or universities, in research as project coordinators, in private practice, public health or as educators in universities and medical schools. In 2007, the average salary of a genetic counselor was $54,600.

Molecular Biologists

This is a research and development career which is very technical and requires advanced education in biology, genetics, and research techniques. DNA analysis is used to carry out high-level, intensely complex experiments, test theories and develop new methods for research or medicine, or develop new drugs or therapeutic equipment. Most molecular biologists work in research institutes, biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies and in a laboratory environment. Ph.D.-level molecular biologists will conduct DNA analysis work such as gene cloning experiments and biomolecular assays, and their results are compiled into research papers to be published in peer-reviewed science journals, or presented at conferences.

Salaries can vary widely because some molecular biologists may also hold fellowships or additional funding from external grant sources. In many academic settings, salary is also based on the individual's scientific achievements (e.g. patents, supervised graduate students) and publication record. In 2008, the average postdoctoral fellow salary at the National Institutes of Health was $45,000.

Non-science Careers

DNA analysis does not transfer well as a standalone skill to careers outside science. The analysis itself does not provide much non-scientific information. Bioinformatics, genomics or other science skills are often needed to make sense of the DNA sequence being analyzed. A person with skills in DNA analysis can take on roles in management consultancy, patent and intellectual property law, or even science writing. The use of DNA analysis in such jobs, however, will be very limited. For example, lawyers analyzing cases with forensic DNA evidence will be required to rely on information provided by working forensic pathologists, rather than using their own DNA analysis skills because they are not the ones in the laboratory actually carrying out the experiments on the DNA.



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